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On Humour and Playfulness

There is a Bohemianism in the labor movement, and it smacks of sentimentality. The gesture of being dirty because the outcast is dirty, of drinking because he drinks, of staying up all night and talking, because that is what one's guests from the streets want to do, in participating in his sin from a prideful humility, this is self-deception indeed!
~ Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, 255 (slightly edited).
I want to relate this quotation from Day to some recent conversations that have occurred on the topic of humour and playfulness. Some time ago, Peter and I had some discussion on the topic of Baudrillard and Christianity, wherein Peter argued that one should not pursue a method of “analyze-resist” in one's approach to political powers (a method that he sees as far too compromising, reductionistic, and, in the end, legitimising); rather, one should embody an “aesthetic Christianity” wherein one is “free not to take things too seriously, free to play and be joyful” (cf. More recently, David W. Congdon wrote a post entitled “What Would Jesus Drive?” which included a poll, by the same title, that was meant to be humourous (although it appears that many, to David's apparent frustration, took the poll more seriously than intended; cf.
Both of these conversations caused me to reflect about the role of humour and play in Christian thinking and living, and that is what caused me to think of the above quotation from Dorothy Day. You see, Day's quotation reminds us that there are things we incorporate from our surroundings, things that we think are noble and liberating, that actually end up having a negative influence upon us. Perhaps those mentioned by Day think that they are exhibiting a radical form of solidarity with the marginalised when they stay up all night drinking, talking, and stinking, but Day suggests that they actually aren't doing anybody any good and have only deceived themselves.
It is my suspicion that much of the same thing is going on in recent Christian reflections on humour and playfulness (certainly I wouldn't want to suggest that Peter or David fall into this camp — they were the springboards for my thinking, not the targets of it). After all, this recent focus on humour and playfulness did not, by and large, originate within the Christian Academy. Rather, it became one of the major emphases within what has come to be known as “postmodern thought.” However, we must make two important, and disconcerting, observations about the role of these themes in postmodern thought. In particular, we must examine the location of those who make this assertion, and we must examine the foundation of this assertion. First, when we look at the location of those who make this assertion, we quickly realise that, despite their reputation as “radical thinkers,” those who make this assertion tend to be comfortably situated in the upper classes and have come to be well-established within academic and cultural centres of power. It is, perhaps, a little too easy to talk about humour and playfulness while sitting in a lounge, nursing a glass of RomanĂ©e Conti, and smoking French cigarettes. Secondly, when we look at the the foundation of these themes, we come to see that they are premised upon a form of nihilism that denies, and attacks, all meaning and significance. Essentially, when everything means nothing, we might as well laugh and play.
Consequently, when we explore how these themes of humour and play are utilised by Christians what do we find? A largely acritical appropriation performed mostly by (surprise, surprise) Christians well situated in the middle and upper classes — in places of comfort, privilege and power. Such themes are all too easily embraced (and consumed) by those of us who would rather not deal (in too much detail, anyway) with the sufferings of others. In this way, humour and play become a part of the therapy and sensibilities of the Christian middle-class.
Of course, there is an important place for humour and playfulness, but how we understand and engage in those things, might end up being rather different once we move into the lower classes and places where suffering is most evident. For example, I am journeying alongside of many people who have been raped, and many more who will continue to be raped. I have yet to hear a single good rape joke (although, it should be noted, that while in various Christian social settings, I have actually heard more than one rape joke). Of course, most everybody understands this example, but it seems to me that much of the humour and playfulness that is found within much of the mainstream Christian community (including the Academy) expresses a similar apathy to issues that are, literally, life and death issues to others. Simply put, there are some things that are not funny. Of course, this is not to suggest that humour cannot be a powerful weapon, it simply means that we have not spent nearly enough time thinking about how to use humour, lest we end up accomplishing the reverse of what we had hoped, and end up paralleling those “Bohemians of the labour movement” that Day described.
Perhaps a better place to begin thinking about these things is suggested by Paul's command in Ro 12.15: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Brueggemann, by the way, has done an excellent job of exploring this topic). After all, isn't our focus on humour and playfulness, also another proof of our corporate inability to mourn? Yes, humour and play can be powerful, but just as powerful are tears and “hard words from broken hearts” (Wallis' description of the prophetic, in The Call to Conversion). We need to be able to discern how and when to engage in either. How do we learn this discernment? The best solution I know is found by journeying into places of suffering. Those who have known great suffering are the best equipped to teach us great joy (conversely, I think we should be suspicious of the joy of those who know little of suffering). Never have I encountered such joy, play, and laughter, as the joy, play, and laughter, I have encountered in a group of low-track prostitutes sitting down for dinner together, or in a group of homeless kids sharing a smoke on the sidewalk, or in a group of homeless men playing cards together in a drop-in (I have also known great sorrow and pain in those places, but such is the life abundant). It is here, in these places, in these relationships, that one discover the forms and expressions of humour and play that are capable of shaking the foundations of empire.
If you don't believe me, I invite you to come and see for yourself.

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